Crisis In Context

Fire trucks surround a house at the top of Corona Road above Carmel Highlands on Sunday afternoon. Firefighters defended the homes, but the fire is still threatening Highlands neighborhoods.

In terms of acreage burned, the Soberanes Fire may not approach the biggest wildfires in Monterey County history – the Marble Cone, Basin Complex and Indians fires – but in terms of people displaced and homes burned, it has the potential to be the most devastating because of its proximity to populated areas.

As this story went to print, at least 20 homes and two outbuildings have burned, and 2,000 more structures stood in the fire’s path. Hundreds of people have evacuated from Palo Colorado, as well as a handful of other rural communities along Highway 1, including part of Carmel Highlands. In Carmel Valley, parts of the Santa Lucia Preserve were evacuated Tuesday afternoon as the fire moved east.

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Meanwhile, the fire continues to expand, and despite a growing force of more than 3,000 firefighters by July 27, the threat to some of the most densely populated areas south of Point Lobos remained acute.

To get a better sense of the size and impacts of the Soberanes Fire, here’s a look at past county wildfires for context:

• Marble Cone Fire, which burned for three weeks in August 1977, consumed 178,000 acres. According to Big Sur: A Complete History and Guide, the fire burned the majority of the Big Sur River watershed. Structures burned: 0. Cause: lightning.

• The Basin Complex Fire burned 162,818 acres for five weeks from June to July 2008. Structures burned: 58. Cause: lightning.

• While the Basin Complex burned, the Indians Fire scorched 81,378 acres to its east for four weeks from June to July 2008. The fires eventually joined each other, and together, amount to the biggest fire in county history at over 240,000 acres burned. Structures burned: 15, plus one damaged. Cause: unattended campfire.

• Just past midnight on Dec. 15, 2013, the Pfeiffer Fire tore up Pfeiffer Ridge, burning several homes before firefighters even had time to respond. It ultimately burned 917 acres before being brought under control within a few days. Structures burned: 34. Cause: unprotected electrical wiring from the Pfeiffer Ridge Mutual Water and Road Company.

• The Tassajara Fire burned 1,086 acres for a week last September after fire quickly spread through grass from a man who set himself on fire in a car just off Tassajara Road in Cachagua. Structures burned: 20, plus one damaged. Cause: suicide by self-immolation.

How Big is Big

1.3 acres = A football field
1,000 acres = Golden Gate Park
30,000 acres = San Francisco

The cause of the Soberanes Fire, which started just below the Soberanes Creek Trail about two miles east of Highway 1, remains under investigation.

Local Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Pangburn says like all fires in Big Sur, firefighters are battling in rugged, steep terrain to bring the Soberanes Fire under control, but its proximity to so many homes sets it apart.

“What different about this [fire] is how many different communities are threatened,” he says. “These are lot of communities.”

Pangburn adds, however, that coastal wildfire conditions on the Central Coast are unique compared to other regions in the state, even the world. He says even when it’s humid, the vegetation is so dry it burns during the day, and at night, even when the fog and chilly marine air are most likely to roll in, the fog layer brings winds that fuel the fire instead of providing relief.

“It burns more in the night than day,” Pangburn says, “which is almost the exact opposite of any other area on the planet.”

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